Published Date: 03.07.2007
The Police Ombudsman has praised a police officer for his quick thinking in discharging his firearm during an incident reminiscent of one of the most gruesome images of 'the Troubles.'
The incident began on March 6 last year when four men in a silver car stopped outside Tenant Street Police Station in Belfast, got out of their car and started throwing stones and bottles over its perimeter fence, before speeding off.
Police officers in an unmarked armoured car left the station in order to catch the men. They chased the men's car which drove into the Shankill Road area and into the Mossvale Street, where the men got out and ran off. Two police officers stopped their car, two officers got out and chased the men on foot.
After a few seconds chasing the men the officers were faced with a hostile crowd, estimated to be between 40 and 50 people. The officers then turned around and ran for the safety of their car. They managed to make it to the vehicle and lock themselves inside, by which time the hostile crowd caught up with them and surrounded the car.
In a scene which echoed the attack in west Belfast in March 1988, when an angry crowd dragged two soldiers from their car and to their deaths, the crowd started to bang on the armoured car in their attempts to get inside and pull the officers out. They managed to break some of its armoured windows. The officers in the car radioed for help.
Several officers were in the area and made their way to Mossvale Street to help. The first officer on the scene saw the police car surrounded by the crowd. He discharged one shot into the air, followed a few seconds later by a second shot.
By this stage a number of other officers had arrived on the scene. On seeing the arrival of the additional police and hearing the sirens of other vehicles rushing to the area the crowd then ran off.
Several hours of rioting followed during which a number of police officers received minor inquires and several police vehicles were damaged.
The incident was referred to the Police Ombudsman's Office to investigate, as are all instances when police weapons were fired.
Police Ombudsman investigators established that there was no CCTV camera in the area. An examination of the police car in which the officers had been trapped showed that some of its armoured windows had been smashed and that that a number of the armoured panels were dented. It was later established that the car took several thousand pounds to repair.
Investigators carried out house-to-house inquiries and a number of witnesses were identified. One man said he saw a mob attack a car. Some people said they heard police shouting warnings and saw shots being fired into the air.
The Police Ombudsman investigators spoke to all the officers involved. The officers inside the car said they had feared for their lives and said they believed if their colleague had not fired his weapon the crowds would have managed to get them out of the vehicle and injure or kill them.
The officer who fired the shots said he issued a warning to the crowd but this had no effect. He said he fired one shot and this caused the crowd to stop momentarily. He said some of the crowd then shouted to each other that they were going to try and get his gun and began moving towards him. The officer said he feared for his own life and well as those of his colleagues and fired another shot into the air.
The Police Ombudsman has praised his action:
'There is no doubt that this officer was confronted by a very real and potentially life threatening situation. His quick thinking may well have prevented serious or even fatal injuries to his colleagues. He is to be commended,' said Mrs O'Loan.